Monday 20 December 2004

Britain has become a Kafkaesque nightmare

by Muriel Gray

We were taught at school that Franz Kafka’s The Trial was a dark satire on bureaucracy. No disrespect to the teacher in question, temporarily standing in for our regular grand dame of English who would never have made such an error, but The Trial is considerably more than that

In fact Kafka’s tale of Joseph K, a bank clerk charged with an unspecified crime, arrested and eventually executed without ever knowing the reason why, is one of the most chilling horror stories of the 20th century. But its horror lies not in the simple mocking of opaque, bureaucratic obstinacy, but in the nightmare vision of a society where morality and logic, the keystones that build civilisation, have been replaced by an authority exercising feckless whims and displaying insane, dangerous inconsistencies.

It’s not just Joseph K’s execution that horrifies, since injustice is commonplace in history, but also the fact that K, living in a dreamscape anarchy he has failed to notice, still believes in the rule of law, and refuses to accept that a power obeyed by public consensus could possibly make such an error. Hence Kafka’s vision still resonates with the atrocities around the globe, carried out by people simply because they can get away with it.

Kafka’s feverish bad dreams come readily to mind on reading the comments by Lord Scott, one of the law lords who last week ruled that the government’s 2001 legislation that permits indefinite detention of foreign terror suspects without trial or explanation is an atrocious breach of human rights. Lord Scott described the current regime, which permits the Home Secretary to lock up untried suspects for as long as it pleases him, as being “the stuff of nightmares, associated with France before and after the revolution, with soviet Russia in the Stalinist era, and now associated, as a result of section 23 of the 2001 Act, with the United Kingdom”.

Indeed. Well said. So now what happens? One might imagine the government, sufficiently shamed, will take immediate steps to repeal this disgusting and thoroughly uncivilised piece of legislation, and, in the process, make some attempt to explain themselves. Perhaps they could plead temporary insanity due to the horrors of September 11. What else could have possessed those claiming to fight the enemies of civilisation to have begun a process of dismantling the very justice and freedom upon which our own is based?

But no, the government has not issued an apology or excuse. Foreign Secretary Jack Straw has pronounced the law lords to be “simply wrong”. In response to Lord Nicholls, who said that “indefinite imprisonment without charge or trial is anathema in any country which observes the rule of law”, Straw counters that the right to life is “the most important liberty” and that the government has a duty to protect people from terrorism.

Precisely what part of Lord Nicholls’s statement contradicts this in Jack’s confused mind is not made clear, but what is crystal clear is that the government’s intention is to try to expand the legislation from allowing them just to lock up Johnny Foreigner and throw away the key, to be able to do the same to British citizens they don’t much like the look of.

Even the Thatcher government, a motley crew who gave the impression of believing that liberty and justice should be available only to those who could afford it, managed to suffer the decades of Irish terrorism without recourse to imprisonment without trial.

The excuse that non-negotiating suicide bombers are quite a different matter from Irishmen who favour blowing people up from a comfortable distance is not good enough. Surveillance technology and international intelligence sharing has improved rapidly since the dark days of the troubles, and if the authorities can identify someone so accurately as being a threat that they require detention, then surely those individuals can be brought to trial with the evidence that makes the intelligence agencies believe this to be so?

Like the authority in The Trial, the Kafkaesque nightmare is that our government seems to be displaying signs not of irrationality, but of insanity. Nice guys one day, fascists the next. How are we supposed to negotiate our way through the terrifying contradictions that New Labour constantly presents us with? If a foreign country were to be guilty of imposing indefinite imprisonment without trial, we would at the very least be calling for sanctions and boycotts. That Tony and his chums can do this in our name, at the same time as trying to eradicate poverty and undo social injustices that were crushed under Conservative boots, is Pavlovian in the extreme.

It almost makes one nostalgic for the good old days of Thatcher, when at least we could be certain that the government was one big self-serving, greedy, duplicitous, immoral lump that required opposing at every turn. The difficulty now is that there are still good people in the Labour administration, struggling to make changes and improve lives, and yet they share the stage with a gaggle of sleazy, lying, undemocratic and dangerous, ulterior motive-driven sharks.

Since we now know that the Iraq war was not to save us from oblivion but instead to fulfil some self-interested Blair political agenda, we must also assume that neither ID cards nor detention without trial are to protect us either. Yet to remove Blair and his party from power will set back domestic politics at a time when we can least afford it, there being no current effective or viable opposition available to fill the void. The coup has to come from within. Surely those in the party who can see that Blair has gone quite mad, can find the impetus and means to remove him and his team of increasingly fiendish allies from power?

Of course it’s our own fault. Like Joseph K, we’ve been sleepwalking towards this for years, but when the Prime Minister and his Cabinet can choose to ignore and undermine the most senior law makers in the land, it’s difficult to imagine what effect the mere electorate can have on this gradual creep towards the loss of justice, liberty and plain decency.

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